As conflict rages over “cancel culture,” identity politics and use of violence in the contemporary left, this Burlington, VT public access TV interview from 1986 with legendary anarchist Murray Bookchin remains shockingly relevant. When it was recorded, comrades were widely accusing each other of being “CIA agents.” Fast forward to the last few years and that accusation has simply been replaced with “cop.” For the left to regain any real power in the US, a lot of self interrogation is required. This assessment by a veteran member of the old left of its immoral tactics is an integral part of that self-critique and a segue into making a similar criticism of underhanded behavior engaged in by the modern left.
In 2013, American Marxist Edmund Berger published excerpts from an abandoned writing project on his blog. The two posts, titled “From Socialism to Neoliberalism: A Story of Capture,” chronicle the downfall of the Socialist Party of America and the ideological drift of seminal figures like Bayard Rustin from democratic socialism to anti-Communist hawkishness. It’s essential reading regarding the downfall of the American left.
In another piece written for Passage, Paris Marx describes how private homeownership forces home buyers to conform to and prioritize the logic of the market, viewing a home less as a stable dwelling and more “an investment that’s meant to generate wealth.” He also points out the role of condominiums in giving the wealthy who live in dense urban settings the option to buy rather than rent, reducing the profitability of the rental market. Marx is unambiguous in his advocacy of mass investment in public housing that is “not subject to market forces” as the solution to the housing issues plaguing Toronto (which apply as much to almost any other large North American city.)
“This government promotion of home ownership across much of the Western world changed the culture of our societies. As author Grace Blakeley describes in Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation, home ownership makes people more invested in the capitalist system as they build wealth through the ownership of an asset — even though the vast majority of the benefits continue to accrue to the wealthy.“
These three pieces from the current issue of left-wing Canadian publication Passage deal with problems that are both longstanding and dramatically contemporary: Aaron Giovannone on the leveraging of unemployment against workers, Kieran Delamont on the need to resist a return to pre-COVID-19 style consumerism, and Paris Marx on the necessity of a move away from atomized private spaces and towards publicly owned commons.
Here are some choice excerpts:
“High unemployment rates mean employers can take their pick of the glut of applicants, offering them lower wages. Poor unemployment benefits make workers more desperate to take a job, and to keep the one they have. And frightened and vulnerable workers provide weak resistance to management’s demands to intensify their workload.” – Aaron Giovannone
“After three months in our homes, the pressure to consume in a certain way feels less necessary. While general pandemic experiences have differed depending on the country and region, the effect COVID-19 has had on consumer culture has been one of few trends felt on a supranational scale. With this in mind, we should commit to a version of economic recovery that looks like how we’ve been living and buying during quarantine — slower and more considered and ethical. Instead of rushing ourselves back into the fluorescent, corporate dynamic we left behind, we should build something closer to home.” – Kieran Delamont
“This shift toward private car use and suburban, single-family homes also helped change people’s character. In 1973, journalist and philosopher André Gorz described how the car was inherently a luxury good whose benefits cannot be democratizing because there simply isn’t enough space in a city for everyone to have one. He compared it to a seaside villa — not everyone can own one, so the beach must be a communal space. Gorz argued that mass automobility was ‘an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily life,’ making everyone believe ‘the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else.’ This is undeniably linked to the mass consumption that also arose in the postwar period, when all of a sudden there were a ton of consumer goods for people to fill their new suburban homes.” – Paris Marx
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Three Scandinavians (Andreas Møller Mulvad, Rune Møller Stahl and Kjell Östberg) chronicle the halcyon era of Swedish social democracy (and its failure to transition into democratic socialism) and highlight Denmark’s welfare state as a refutation of superficial American anti-left talking points. Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day continues the Scandinavian theme, arguing that the fetishization of the Danish concept of Hygge ignores the political realities of its country of origin. In a later article, Day challenges the notion that the U.S. possesses a welfare state of any real substance, instead relying on “an elaborate system of tax expenditures intended to facilitate private welfare provision.”
Collectively, the articles offer important insight into the much vaunted social democracies of Scandinavia and, with Day’s second piece, how that form of welfare statism has utterly failed to materialize in the United States.
Latest addition to the bibliography: Categorically rejecting police reform in favor of abolition is a serious mistake. Americans arguing for the latter don’t seem aware that the U.S. criminal justice system and policing standards are vastly different from many other industrialized countries, appearing even more grotesque in comparison then they do on their own. Writing in The Week, Ryan Cooper (whose 2018 piece on Bernie Sanders and American Social Democracy is also in the bibliography) presents law enforcement in the Nordic countries as one such example.
For those who still dismiss efforts to emulate such models in the U.S., Cooper crucially points out the following: “Adopting the Nordic police model would be tantamount to abolishing the American criminal justice system as it currently exists — which is why it should happen immediately.”
In the latest update to the bibliography, another great article from FES Connect: Andris Šuvajevs (a tutor at Rīga Stradiņš University and frequent FES collaborator) on the true value of key/essential workers, made clear by the COVID-19 crisis:
“It turns out that there are at least two kinds of work: essential and illusory. A good indicator of what yours is depends on the level of comfort you enjoy in the pandemic lockdown. The higher up the material ladder one goes, the less likely it is society would notice the absence of your labour.“
The origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to the nineteenth century. In May of 1868, Union veterans of the civil war established Decoration Day in recognition of their fallen brethren by adorning their graves with flowers. Following the First World War, the holiday was expanded to include all soldiers in the U.S. military who had died in American wars and was eventually declared a national holiday in 1971, now dubbed Memorial Day. In retrospect, the official recognition of Memorial Day in 1971, a year in which 2,414 died in the Vietnam War, seems grossly opportunistic.
Memorial Day 2020 is now upon us. If anything, it seems as though this year’s holiday will have mainly served as a catalyst to further the spread of COVID-19. The Memorial Day weekend (coinciding with the reopening of many states) sent Americans flocking to beaches and even pools, frequently ignoring physical distancing and without any kind of PPE. In Austin, Texas (where reopened bars have been ordered to limit their occupancy to 25% capacity), revelers packed into a nightclub. A video shot in the establishment shows patrons side-by-side, hugging and without masks, negating the positive effects any limits on capacity that were supposedly being enforced could have had. On Friday, Alabama reopened bowling alleys, movie theaters and summer camps, even as COVID-19 infections increased to the point where the mayor of Montgomery announced that the critically ill would be sent to Birmingham as the city had run out ICU beds.
Memorial Day ostensibly honors the sacrifices of the U.S. armed forces. The legitimacy of that alone is questionable. What’s honorable about dying in immoral and imperialistic military actions like Vietnam or the 2003 Iraq war? That said, let us for the moment take Memorial Day at face value. If the point of the holiday is to honor those who sacrificed their lives to arguably protect both their country’s sovereignty and its civilian population, then Memorial Day 2020 is a metaphorical slap in the face to all it pays tribute to. Memorial Day’s secondary purpose as an excuse for the retail sector to lure in customers with sales, discounts and limited-time offers already undercuts the somber nature of the occasion. Purchasing a foreign-made LED TV for thirty percent off in no way translates into a tribute to a soldier who died fighting on the beaches of Normandy. But that is, of course, not the worst part of this year’s observance.
Memorial Day 2020 is, as previously stated, taking place while grossly negligent state and municipal governments bow to the pressures of the private sector and reopen commercial and public spaces. It is occurring as the U.S. COVID-19 death toll is about to reach the horrific and obscene figure of 100,000, a figure that could have been considerably lower had decisive actions been taken at the appropriate time or the multiple “stay-at-home” orders and closures of non-essential businesses across the country stayed in place for longer. Instead, the U.S. has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. The dead include the scores of essential workers (especially healthcare workers) who contracted and succumbed to the virus due to a lack of adequate PPE. It includes those with families and dependents who had to continue working, unable to survive on a one-time $1,200 check and moderately increased unemployment insurance (and whose states never passed the sort of anti-eviction legislation that others did). It includes the residents of mismanaged long-term care facilities, like the more than seventy veterans living at a Holyoke, Massachusetts “soldier’s home.”
The dead who are being honored today gave their lives for a country that is cruelly and cavalierly allowing its citizens to die of a pathogen it could have greatly reduced the spread of. This is compounded by their day of recognition and tribute coinciding with the number of virus casualties reaching a near six-figure level that’s comparable to a nuclear weapon being detonated over an American city. Clearly, there are two groups whose sacrifice should be remembered today. There’s no nationally mandated holiday for COVID-19 casualties, however. When some of them were still alive, they were “honored” with jet fighter flyovers, a crude, militaristic and ultimately empty gesture that drew the ire of the very front line medical personnel it was meant to salute. Now, as scores of Americans return to work, go to pool parties, clubs and bars, movie theaters, and do so without any masks or effort to physically distance, the virus will spread, the reproduction numbers will increase across the country, and the death toll will rise even higher. This is what our veterans died to defend: a selfish, proudly ignorant nation where profit and the individual come before all else, and mass death is normalized.
My paternal grandfather, who died of natural causes in 2008, was a non-combat veteran of the Second World War. Stricken with polio as a child and burdened with cerebral palsy as a result, he nonetheless served domestically as a private second class in the U.S. military, transporting generals in his jeep, driving supply trucks and acting as an interpreter for Italian POWs. He didn’t die fighting for his country, but served it in a non-violent capacity and did so despite his disability. I believe he still deserves recognition on Memorial Day. I also believe that the current situation is a horrendous insult to his memory. My grandfather was, like so many others, a living testament to the necessity of vaccination. Born decades prior to the creation of the polio vaccine, he suffered the disease’s effects for the entirety of his long life. Now, as a pandemic is killing thousands of Americans each day, crowds of rabidly libertarian protesters are hysterically decrying public health measures as “tyranny” and stating that they’d refuse to be vaccinated even if a cure for COVID-19 is discovered. Meanwhile, our president fans the flames of the protesters anger, rallying them with his right wing populist declarations of state “liberation.” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is effectively treating his state’s population as guinea pigs in an experiment to see how many will survive the premature repeal of the safety measures that had been in place to protect them from the virus.
This is an America that no veteran should be proud to have served, let alone died for. Thus, this Memorial Day is a hollow tip of the hat to our dead veterans. Secondarily, it is a non-recognition of the casualties of the war on COVID-19. On this day, I maintain many of the individuals that served and died in America’s wars never should have had to fight at all, especially those who died fighting in the service of imperialism and Thucydidean foreign policy. I recognize the deaths of those who’ve been lost to COVID-19, and wonder if it will take debilitating infection or the death of a loved one to get through to the many that increasingly process their deaths as yet another abstract statistic in the daily news cycle. The lack of concerted opposition to the U.S.’s criminal response to COVID-19 is bad enough, but the normalization of mass death will worsen the situation to a degree that will earn this period the unambiguous recognition as one of the darkest and most contemptible in American history.
The bibliography now includes the seminal works of Ferdinand Lassalle, Eduard Bernstein and Carlo Rosselli (namely, The Working Man’s Programme, Evolutionary Socialism and Liberal Socialism), all foundational to the development of democratic socialism and, subsequently, social democracy. Thanks to the indefatigable Internet Archive, the new entries for Lassalle and Bernstein include links to the full texts of the works in question. As for Rosselli’s Liberal Socialism, I’d highly recommend purchasing the Princeton University Press edition, edited and featuring a lengthy introduction by Nadia Urbinanti.
Recently, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung published an essay by the International Labor Organization‘s Shahra Razavi. She contends that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it inarguably clear why strong social protections (universal health coverage, unemployment insurance, etc.) are necessary to ensure not simply the protection of the population during a crisis, but that as many as possible can live a dignified and stable life, free from the fear of destitution via a health or economic shock. I’ve added Razavi’s piece to the bibliography since it’s a quality defense of some of the most basic tenets of social democracy.